ROOK – Jane Rusbridge

Rook - Jane Rusbridge

Jane Rusbridge’s ROOK is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel rooted in the landscape and history of the village of Bosham and its surroundings on the Sussex coast. The expressive and emotional power of natural, temporal, musical, interpersonal, and mental rhythms and relations permeate Rusbridge’s narrative and prose. Nora is an ex-concert cellist whose return to her family home in Bosham is precipitated by a crisis which haunts the novel. She continues to teach and music rises in her mind in moments of stress in a manner reminiscent of Septimus Harding in The Warden. Nora’s increasingly frail, self-absorbed and time-dazed mother Ada seems to haunt and hate the house, at one point taking a croquet mallet to the French windows. The widow of an archaeologist buried alive whilst excavating, Ada slips in and out of an alternately Arcadian and regretted past, her confusion communicated in the liquid language which pervades ROOK, ‘Ada’s mind swam…creek water silted in the nooks and crannies of her mind and sometimes the sense of what she wanted to say or even think had washed away or sunk.’

The eponymous Rook, his name quite literal, is rescued as a baby by Nora from the attention of callous youths, and she nurtures him into a strapping adult. His presence emphasises the interpenetration of nature and the human sphere, as does the helplessness of the villagers in the face of that most rhythmic of phenomena: the tide. Nora’s maternal attitude to Rook also contrasts with the diminished relationship she has with Ada: ‘Rook’s eyes are closed. ‘Go to sleep, little one.’’ Nora’s delight when he finally caws and then flies is as deep as that one takes in the first words and steps of a child. Nora, of course, is lacking a parent:

Nora would like to ask her father if what drew him to archaeology was his preoccupation with time, and whether it is from him that she inherited her own strong and natural sense of rhythm, her body’s instinctive feel for time. She’d like to talk to him about the way the passing of time changes what we once believed to be truth or fact into something previously unknown.

The excavation of buried secrets, of a multi-layered and shifting past is a major theme of ROOK. Bosham’s church and the occupants of certain graves attract Jonny: a handsome documentary maker who arrives to research a programme about King Cnut and his illegitimate daughter, but who detects the possibility of a greater historical – and romantic – coup. This leads to fierce arguments over Bosham’s history, the villagers’ obligations to the past and present, and, centrally, the substance of history itself. The reaction of the village to Jonny is nicely captured by ROOK’s violent dislike for him. Jonny and Nora’s desire to know, to pin down some historical truth is at odds with the fluidity, literal and metaphorical, of the past and its muddy elements. Rusbridge’s allegiance to the allure of historical indeterminacy comes out strongly. A.L. Rowse’s oft-quoted sentiment seems apt, ‘History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realised: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.’ Harry, a symbol of the land and authenticity throughout, puts it this way, ‘My point –’ Harry looks up at the ceiling, rubs his chin and sighs, ‘is the mystery. Way too big a loss, the mystery.’

A rhythm will take away, will, like the tide recede as well as return, and loss is a feature of ROOK. Rook has lost something for all that he gains in Nora’s care, Nora and her mother each have their own losses to face or retreat from, and the long-dead Edyth Swan-Neck’s loss is apparent from the opening pages set in the aftermath of a certain well-known battle. Her presence in Bosham is symbolised by the swans which glide through the water and across the borders of the Bayeux tapestry. Writing in the continuous present Rusbridge emphasises both the sheer immediacy of experience and the penetration of memory and the distant past. At times she approaches the visionary as characters slip into the past mid-thought, mid-action, without it being obvious where the divide came. Likewise certain thoughts take the shape of natural and material phenomena and things, as with Ada’s shifting water-way of a mind.

Rusbridge’s poetic phrasing and symbolic complexity renders the writing incantatory and impressionistic. ‘Slivers of sunlight bounce on ripples blown sideways by the breeze.’ Water takes on a significance reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s Water; that de-churched spirituality which bespeaks a connection with land and history is also echoed – perhaps ironically – in Larkin’s Church Going.

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

Language is vitally important in ROOK as an orientating and connecting tool. Certain words connect us to the quality of a historical awareness. Whilst reading one of her husband’s books Ada savours the ‘Anglo-Saxon words for mud: cledgy; sleech; slommocky. She mouths the sl and bl of them, shaping her tongue and lips around their texture. Stabble means to walk thick mud into the house. She likes the squelch and spread of the word, its peaks and smears.’ Such earthy thickening generates a wonderful atmosphere and occupation of landscape and culture, especially notable in the Saxon elements of the novel. ‘The year was dying: wind and wet leaves, a mist rolling in from the swan-rād.’ And yet, as Rusbridge makes clear, the mystery remains. She has Nora tell Jonny, ‘Motive tells us so much more about character than actions.’ But, of course, it is motive that is so often lost to history, thus generating that tension between the desire to know and its frustration by time’s passing. The connection is in the continuity of landscape, sea, birth, maturation, death: all of which underpin the distinctly jumbled affairs of the inhabitants of Bosham.

ROOK’s climax is sharply affecting and reaches deep into the core of the earth and the human life that persists on and then under it. I was very moved by it despite, or perhaps because of, the premonitions and parallels throughout the book. As a thematic and dramatic convergence it is very powerful and well-controlled. I loved the atmosphere and language of ROOK and recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Ancient Light – John Banville

Memory, regret, and obsession are the somewhat familiar themes of John Banville’s impressive but ultimately unsatisfactory novel Ancient Light. Aged theatre actor Alexander Cleave recalls an affair with the mother of his best friend as a self-absorbed fifteen-year old in small-town 1950s Ireland whilst being haunted in the present by his daughter’s suicide in Liguria ten years earlier and his role in a new film as a shifting and abusive writer. As Cleave and Mrs Gray carry on, despite his adolescent tantrums, the silvered light that permeates his recollections stands in contrast to the darker, outwardly more confused, present, peopled as it is by women who appear maternal, daughterly, or opaque. This is fitting as a central theme of Ancient Light is surrogacy: the film star Dawn Devonport seems to fill the daughter-shaped hole in his life; and, of course, Mrs Gray is alarmingly maternal like a son much of the time, fussing over his appearance, forbidding him from smoking, and encouraging him to work harder at school. Banville focuses this tension between Mrs Gray’s real son and her lover effectively in the following fluid passage:

 I was outraged, outraged to see the two of them together there, she with her hand resting so lightly on his shoulder, in the midst of all that homeliness, that shared, familiar world, while I stood by as if forgotten. Whatever liberties Mrs Gray might grant me I would never be as near to her as Billy was at that moment, as he always had been and always would be, at every moment. I could only get into her from the outside, but he, he had sprung from a seed and grown inside her, and even after he had shouldered his brute way out of her he was still flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood.

Certain moments recall the feverish illicit summer of The Go-Between. Fittingly for an actor, Cleave’s recollection renders everything more theatrical, more composed, than we might believe them to have been. Characters appear and disappear in narratively convenient way, and, as in The Go-Between, the weather is apparently compliant in its atmospheric duties. This penetration of perception by desire and belief is highlighted by Cleave’s conviction that a regularly rehabilitated tramp he sees wandering the streets near his home must have a daughter looking after him. Cleave sees women behind everything, mothers and daughters.

Mrs Gray explains the meaning of ‘ancient light’ during a pause in proceedings: ‘the sky must be visible at the top of a window viewed from the base of the opposite wall, if memory serves…’ More specifically, ancient light is the right to light derived from long usage of a window: Cleave clings – note the name – to his memories, and should perhaps be allowed to, from sheer habit of recollection. This layer of memory-inflected interpretation is re-enforced by Banville in an episode with a mysterious stranger; an episode which might make more sense in the light of the previous novels in which Cleave appears; I’m not sure it entirely works here:

 Now he was speaking of the ancient light of galaxies that travels for a million – a billion – at trillion! – miles to reach us. ‘Even here,’ he said, ‘at this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time, a tiny time, infinitesimal, yet time, to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past.

The twin poles of Ancient Light, the binary stars perhaps, are flesh and light: light absorbed by flesh, giving weight to the pervasive medium of perception; and flesh mercilessly revealed by the light of memory, of film, of the everyday, and of age. Cleave’s adolescent naivety dissolves in the substance of an older women:

 Those eyelids in particular I loved, carven shells of veined, translucent marble, always cool, always deliciously damp when I touched my lips to them. The milky backs of her knees too were peculiarly cherishable. I even prized the shiny mother-of-pearl stretch-marks on her belly.

In film flesh and personality are composed of frames of light moving so fast we cannot see the gaps. Cleave’s desire is to conjure, compress, and reintegrate those flickering fragments into a smooth 24 frames per second projection of his life. He wants to summon up an image of the past, of his affair and his daughter’s death, yet the need to understand is what engages the imagination, which invents at will and in subordination to the will. The limits of that understanding are brought home by Banville to great effect towards the end of the novel, casting Cleave’s recollection and his young self in a new light yet again.

 I feel that not only my actor self but my self self is made into a thing of fragments and disjointure, not only in the brief intervals when I am before the camera but even when I have stepped out of my role – my part – and reassumed my real, my supposedly real, identity.

In a recent NYR Blog Tim Parks identified the ‘chattering mind’ as the main protagonist of Twenthieth Century literature: the mind ceaselessly seeking to understand itself, its relation to the world,to others, a ‘monstrously heightened consciousness’. Banville’s minds don’t chatter, they glide and ramify, they are discursive rather than jagged in their search for self-understanding; they don’t shatter, except by implication, and even then they do so with grace and poetry. Sometimes this is the problem with Banville’s work. In Ancient Light Cleave’s thought is too smooth, too beautiful. I have trouble believing it to be his voice. I have no trouble believing it to be Banville’s. It is beautiful, it is consummately controlled, but it is not authentic. This did not seem to be a problem in The Sea, a book in which memory and its faithful handmaiden imagination also loom large. Max Morden’s voice in that book, though as lingeringly self-involved, is more plausible than Cleave’s rumination on film-making and identity.

There are moments of great beauty in Ancient Light. It is vintage Banville, but perhaps too vintage. These themes feel overfamiliar and, on this occasion, his undoubted literary weight renders Cleave top-heavy. I would still heartily recommend it. After all, it is perhaps because I expect so much of Banville that I felt slightly let down, despite the fact that I could read such sentences forever.

Amazon: Ancient Light

Man Booker 2012 Series

Right, I’m going to be reading the longlisted books this Summer/Autumn. There is a tab above where I will collate all the reviews. I’ve already posted some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s characterisation which will suffice. It’s too long since I read it for me to go back and write a full review. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is already on my shelf, so that will be the next book on the list. Time to get reading.

Booker Longlist thoughts

EDIT: So, my maths is pretty awful as well. I got three right.

Well, I got that pretty wrong then. Of the thirteen novels I predicted, I managed to score hits on only two; and those were, I thought, pretty solid bets, so I can’t take much credit for that. Small/independent publishers are well represented, although three novels for Fourth Estate is pretty big for them. There is some SF (The Teleportation Accident) and a lot of humour. Overall, pretty interesting and pretty unexpected: no Banville, Zadie Smith, Hensher, Carey, P. Barker, or McEwan. There is also no Hawthorn and Child which I think is pretty disappointing and the main let-down of the list. I’m thinking about trying to read them before the shortlisting, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve got a lot on!

The longlist

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)

Man Booker longlist Prediction

OK, I’ve given in and made the following rather unsurprising predictions for tomorrow.

  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Ancient Light – John Banville
  • Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway
  • Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker
  • NW – Zadie Smith
  • Merivel – Rose Tremain
  • The Painter of Silence  – Georgina Harding
  • Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk
  • Umbrella – Will Self
  • The Land of Decoration – Grace McLeen
  • The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn

Sunday Story Society: ‘Black Box’ by Jennifer Egan

The Sunday Story Society‘s inaugural story is Jennifer Egan’s Black Box published in the New Yorker. These are my thoughts before we discuss it on David Hebblethwaite’s society page.

As I understand it Black Box was written and published sentence by sentence on Twitter before being posted on the website of the New Yorker. Consequently, no sentence is longer than Twitter’s 140 character maximum. In Egan’s hands this enforced concision renders every line taut and intensely particular.

The goal is to be a lovely, innocuous, evolving surprise.

This is the goal of the ‘black box’ herself, the seductive agent whose impersonal instruction in terrorist infiltration constitutes the story. The voice is entirely detached and mechanical, in the manner of a supposed national security training manual. The agent or ‘beauty’ must cleave to her ‘Designated Male’ using all sorts of feminine wiles, each of which is dehumanised as its effect and execution are anatomized.

Egan manages to maintain the impersonal tone whilst conveying the twists and turns of the beauty’s mission, the fears, hopes, pain, and danger. Of course, this is no use to the agency.

Your pounding heartbeat will not be recorded.

The narrative drive Egan attains in each sentence, often by allusion alone, is wonderful and is combined with unexpectedly poetic moments, all of which are deployed in the instrumental manner of the training manual. The beauty of nature is a useful tool, as is the ‘beauty’ herself, who must contemplate the stars in order to calm herself.

The universe will seem to hang beneath you in its milky glittering mystery.

‘Black Box’ is a brilliant piece of writing, each sentence luminous like the stars our ‘beauty’ uses to navigate. I thoroughly recommend it.

Books I’m Looking Forward To

UPDATE: I forgot one!

A Box of Birds – Charles Fernyhough

A thriller set in the world of brain research investigating the clash between materialism and Freudian therapy, Fernyhough looks to investigate the kinds of explanation that can work in fiction, and in considerations of what it means to be human. On the basis of this pitch I supported the book on Unbound. I want to see how it works,

***

I’ll be posting a review of John Banville’s Ancient Light in the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I would post a selection of new books I’m looking forward to in the coming months, some of which have landed on my doormat recently. This is a very short non-exhaustive list which rather favours big names. Feel free to suggest others!

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

The new novel by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy returns to World War One and roughly meshes with the events of Life Class which I was a little disappointed by. Word is that this one is very dark and very good indeed.

 

 

NW – Zadie Smith

After Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Hawthorn and Child another novel of London and its inhabitants which will be very different but, I hope, equally brilliant.

 

 

 

 

The City’s Son – Tom Pollock

Many years ago I went to the pub with Tom Pollock. I’m pretty sure he bought a round, so that’s in his favour. He also mentioned wanting to write. This very well previewed fantasy/YA novel set in a world of ‘monsters and miralces’ is one of the books I really wish I’d got hold of before release.

 

Rook – Jane Rusbridge

‘Look at the stars, Rook. Tell me what you know.’
Set in the village of Bosham on the Sussex coast, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel tackles buried secrets, history, memory, and the meaning of home.

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

I simply adore Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great individuals of the Twentieth Century. Soldier, traveller, linguist, and writer, this man was incredible. Amongst his wonderful books are the chronicles of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as was) in the Thirties, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The third and final installment of that trilogy is being put together by Cooper after this book. I am very excited. See also his books about Greece, where he lived for much of his life: Mani, Roumeli, and a collection titled Words of Mercury. I’m saying nothing…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

If you haven’t read any Denis Johnson then you simply must. Go and get Tree of Smoke. You’ll thank me. This  short novel of the American West is one of the books that was in the running for the unawarded Pulitzer Prize.

 

 

Merivel – Rose Tremain

Following on from Tremain’s 1989 Restoration, Merivel returns to the eponymous courtier and physician in middle age and finds him in a more reflective, but ever mirthful mood. As he journeys across Europe everything seems to go wrong except, I hope, Tremain’s writing.

Review: ‘Hawthorn and Child’ by Keith Ridgway

—We are not at the centre of things, said Child.

So speaks one of the detectives whose names adorn the cover of Keith Ridgway’s simply stunning novel. I resist calling them central characters, or suggesting that the book is about detectives Hawthorn and Child, because such a reduction would so mischaracterise what Ridgway has done here. The book begins with a dream, and that quality persists throughout: shifting, partial, moments elided, the constellation of images slightly brighter than is comfortable, pin-sharp, but whisked away, blurring as they recede, as liquid as the forms which so occupy Ridgway. Figures with curious names – Mishazzo, Gull, Hawthorn, Child – emerge from the dream of North London and occupy the eight linked stories, fill them with uncertainty, fear, flesh, sex, paranoia, and death. The writing is merciless and the effect hypnotic.

 Time stretches but it never breaks. It never breaks.

The place of each story within any overarching narrative is unclear, irresolvable on the basis of the incomplete information we are given. Ridgway begins with an apparent attempted murder to which Hawthorn and Child have been assigned, but this is anything but a crime novel. There is no sequence of investigation and the crime quickly fades into the background for the fractured occupants of a refractory North London.  Indeed, the structural impression is of an eternal present, naturally opposed to narrative and explanation, whilst the experience of each character is a composite of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. The broken experience of the apparently sane fails to comfortably contrast with that of the more uncontrolled and violent occupants of Hawthorn and Child in stories like ‘Marching Songs’ and ‘The Association of Christ Sejunct’. Only they are aware of the cracks, only they feel the need to state what we all seem to unquestioningly believe:

 I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.

There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’explore this sense very effectively in their different ways. Each is intensely affecting, marking out Ridgway as capable of calm, controlled and sympathetic prose, which serves only to heighten the tension that holds the whole book together in such vibrating and paradoxical unity.

Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.

This from a literary agent in ‘How We Ran the Night’ – perhaps the strangest story which, in this novel, is quite something. Psychological and narrative explanation is held up here not simply as impossible, but as wrong-headed. The constructions we impose on those around us support our world, but the world does not support them. That world seems diseased, and Ridgway’s writing oozes this illness across the page in febrile sentences:

 The poisoned evening spun a little. The sky was pink and the buildings black and the lights looked wet in the warmth, and people trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat.

Here flesh and sky merge in a manner typical of the whole work. Experience is organic and as prone to infection as the matter from which it is so often separated in literature. Indeed, one character suffers from just such an infection even as his mind is overcome with paranoid delusions about Tony Blair. Violence and horror pervade Hawthorn and Child.

 On the Internet, you can watch people dying, all over the place. This is new isn’t it? This is a new thing in the world.

Real or imagined, there is an odd seduction in mutilated flesh and mental anguish, which can reach a quite extraordinary pitch in its conjunction with the commonplaces of everyday life, culminating in a horror I will leave you to discover for yourself. That horror is delivered with consummate skill and control, in a manner which is hard to communicate in a review. Ridgway’s achievement in this book is quite remarkable in its imaginative breadth and literary depth. I’m not sure that I have read anything like it. As Hawthorn and Child struggle to understand and act in the world around them, to resolve persons and events, one thing comes to the fore more strongly than anything else,

 We’re all mostly bullshit.

Amazon: Hawthorn and Child

Or go to your local bookshop!

Wednesday Poem – A Noble Brow

A Noble Brow

 

A lined spine is a beautiful thing.

Those ridges the textures of a literary

Consumption, standing proud testament

To past acts and present value,

Even as lustre fades.

 

Rest is the only cure for herniated

Leaves and sagging stitching, a simple case

Book for any surgeon in a binding

Agreement with Hippocrates.

 

Those floppy American things refuse

To wrinkle – a collagen of the cover –

Deny their very consummation in

A Hollywood of wholly insincere

Effect.

 

Hardbacks have a rod up their arse.

Where is the fun in hiding beneath a

Jacket, inapt for rapt attention,

Wrapped in cloth and bored.

(Not to mention the price!)

 

Lines and liver spots and coffee rings

Memorialize a marriage of minds.

Shelved but not forgotten, communes

Of living words with a view, these sprightly

Raconteurs grow old in their fullness.

Review: ‘Dirt’ by David Vann

David Vann’s Dirt presents something of a dichotomy. This is a novel deeply concerned with fragmentation and disjunction, oppression and dysfunction. And yet Vann’s fragmented and oppressive delivery renders Dirt ultimately unsatisfying despite very compelling and unsettling passages. It is 1985 in Sacramento, California, and 22 year old Galen lives with his self-deceiving and emotionally immature mother in their old family home which is surrounded by neglected land and a walnut orchard. They live on the money of Galen’s grandmother, the survivor of an abusive husband, who has been parked in a home as her memory fails. The anguish and violence of Dirt centre on this money which Galen’s aunt and her 17 year old daughter Jessica feel they are being denied by his mother. Whenever the family convenes snide comments and resentment and selective memory suffocates all feeling. Eventually, in a cabin in the mountains, all hell breaks loose; all the familial fragmentation that accompanies Galen’s desired material dissolution becomes complete. What happens then is testament to Vann’s undeniable power to shock.

Galen’s postprandial purging is the literal manifestation of the corruption festering inside his family. Violence and hatred and despair concentrate in a stream of vomit.

He found a stand of smaller pines providing enough cover, braced against the largest of them, leaned over, pushed is finger back hard into his throat, and let all the piggy grease and egg drool and pancake and syrup come out, purged himself, made himself clean again. If only there were some way he could throw up his family and not have them inside him anymore.

Galen is symbolic of the thematic tensions of Dirt. His bulimia bespeaks a revulsion for the physical, for the dirt and soil of the garden, for his desire that this too too solid flesh would melt, his world bounded by the grounds of the family estate: an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. Galen’s relationship to the contents of that garden, to the dirt and detritus which surrounds him, comes to define the novel.

Galen seeks detachment from the world and the most corrupting attachments of those around him are to the memories they hold dear of an alternately idyllic and dysfunctional childhood in the house and garden which looms large in Dirt. They would do better to let them go, and yet in Galen’s grandmother Vann implants a warning against the kind of detachment he seeks: ‘Do you know what it’s like to not remember? It’s like being no one, but still having to live anyway.’

Substance, weight, matter lie behind all of this. How do people become substantial except through memory and attachment? Each character has different memories, different attachments, and so the heft of the world is different for each. The air, the sun, the earth resist, substantive each in their own way. For Galen, the desire to dissolve and the substance of the world become interwoven.

‘The point was the struggle. The air thickened here so that he would labor. The shovel felt heavy so that he could feel he was doing something. The world provided resistance, and as we struggled through, we learned our final lessons.’

Vann’s writing allows no escape from the physical and from exertion. His is an intensely embodied language, continuously frustrating the Galen’s ascetic aims; never more so than when Galen’s cousin Jennifer arouses his lusts, reinforcing his embodiment and his attachment in the starkest terms possible. Vann pulls no punches in his depiction of their broken relationship, rejecting the dualism of the New Age and Buddhist mishmash to which Galen subscribes, but leaving little by way of consolation.

This is a very good but not a great novel. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite cohere and, in a sense, it is not meant to. Vann conjures the disjointed welter of images, thoughts, sensations, and frustrations Galen experiences effectively, but at too great a length.

‘Everything we knew was fragment. Streams held together to appear as solids. The fundamental nature of all things.’

To an extent repetition and the visionary are effective, and some of Vann’s writing is breathtaking both in its subject and delivery, but beyond a certain point it becomes somewhat numbing, which undermines the intended effect. The final third of Dirt is gripping, but even there Vann’s writing can feel overcooked. It is deeply unsettling to read and that is testament to the way Vann plays out the horror and dissolution of his subject.

Amazon: Dirt